I don’t believe the legal profession will continue to exist as it is today for much longer. The profession has changed over the decades and centuries as technology has changed, especially in the last decade, but what I can see happening is something far more radical. As cognitive systems like IBM’s Watson start to have more of an impact in our daily activities and become smarter, they will begin to do more and more of the work lawyers do far faster, more effectively and cheaper.
The challenge for lawyers is figuring out what their roles will be in the next 10 to 20 years. I suspect we will see at least two types of “lawyers” emerging:
Legal technicians who serve as coders, tweaking these cognitive systems, supplying them with additional inputs they don’t already receive from being plugged into the Web and all connected data systems; and
Legal information architects who map out the high level policy models and structures that will guide how laws develop and evolve in conjunction with these smart machines and their deep learning.
I came across two articles on the weekend which explore aspects of this which you may want to read if this topic interests you:
I wrote an article recently which was a thought experiment of sorts about what this future could look like. It was focused on a vehicle sale in 2034 (of course a futurist chimed in on Twitter that people won’t be buying cars in the future, so there’s that reality check) and I don’t think we are that far away from this sort of reality.
Contracts are increasingly complex and difficult to navigate, even with recent efforts to simplify the language we use. Much of this is the result of efforts to express complex and interrelated legal and compliance concepts in words and since every legal writer has his or her individual style, the variations in contracts are staggering.
Recently one of my clients asked me for a single paragraph that somehow encapsulated a vendor contract. My response was that such a thing is extremely risky and not pragmatic. There is simply too much in a contract of that nature to adequately express in a single paragraph. Instead, I suggested a couple of options that streamlined the interface for the complete contract.
Later that night I thought about the request further and what it would take to create a “1 paragraph contract” for my client. I realised that such a thing would look very different to the contracts we have now. In fact, the path to a an effective contract that could be expressed in such a short form could lead to a radical overhaul of the broader legal and compliance environment that underpins almost everything we do.
Imagine that instead of expressing those complex and interrelated legal and compliance concepts in words, we reverse the process and establish a syntax to express those concepts more abstractly and yet in a way that still includes all that stuff the “fine print” is designed to cater for in our every day dealings? We could develop a new way of going about our business that doesn’t require lawyers writing pages of contracts that may still be susceptible to interpretational differences.
Going further, what if the way we contract ties directly into a broader contracts profile we all have from our first contract and which gives assurances as to what we can legitimately contract for? This is just the beginning of what could be possible. Legal frameworks could be developed, implemented and enforced programmatically. It would mean a radical transformation of the legal profession, possibly the end of much of the profession as we know it today. On the other hand, it would mean that people could go about their lives, dealing with each other with more confidence, far less uncertainty and without needing to spend so much on unintelligible legal fees.
The story below is a hypothetical scenario which should give you an idea of how this could work. Whether this scenario becomes a reality one day is another question altogether. I suspect that two developments will be key drivers: the so-called Internet of Things and cognitive systems like IBM’s Watson.
How I sold my car in 2034
I arranged to meet Andre on a sunny Sunday morning, 28 May 2034, to sell him my vintage car. I hadn’t met him in person before but I knew it was him because I received verification of his identity when we shook hands and sat down through an interaction between our CitIdents, the SmartNet and some or other authentication process my contract technician told me happens in the background. We met in a local teahouse and chatted while the waitron delivered our orders. Andre asked me about my run earlier that morning (my best time yet) and I congratulated him on his daughter’s latest masterpiece which he shared the night before. We then turned our attention to the deal we were about to make.
Andre kicked off the discussion with a quick data request to access the car’s entry in my Registry. He reviewed the car’s purchase and service history along with its logged mileage and general condition. It pretty much matched the data representation I posted with my sale ad the week before and he was also able to confirm that I was the car’s owner and entitled to sell it to him in the first place. He didn’t say anything but I suspect he also ran a quick valuation check through SmartNet to confirm my asking price was reasonable. This sounds like a lot but he finished his initial review in the time it took me to empty a sachet of sweetener into my tea and stir it.
He smiled and said he was comfortable with the car’s history and condition as well as my price. We exchanged data requests for access to the relevant portions of our contract profiles in our respective CitIdents (this has become standard practice when contracting these days). We both received confirmation that we had the necessary legal capacity to sell and buy the car (Andre’s verification included confirming with my bank that I have paid my vehicle finance and the bank had transferred ownership to me). Andre’s bank confirmed with me that he had sufficient funds to pay for the car on our agreed terms and established a payment link to my bank account for a one way funds transfer.
We decided, for the sake of tradition, to conclude our contract with a handshake. Our wrist tokens registered each other’s proximity as I said “I, Paul Jacobson, agree to sell you my car for our agreed price today.”. Andre smiled again and, in return, said “I accept your offer to buy your car today.”. With that our respective CitIdent’s registered the details of our agreement: the car being sold, our agreed purchase price, the current date and time as well as our verified identities. The SmartNet quickly polled our CitIdents for the further information it required to complete the legal and logistical aspects of our deal, advised the relevant local authorities so they could update their records and I received a data notification that the car had been removed from my Registry and transferred into Andre’s along with confirmation of the first of Andre’s payments.
We chatted a little more, finished our tea. Andre took a call from his partner and while he was chatting, I took a moment to review the transaction records newly associated with my CitIdent’s contract profile. Sure enough the sale was symbolically represented using the usual cheerful info-icons with the broad parameters of our transaction supplemented with the usual conditions, restrictions and permissions provided by the SmartNet’s latest contracts AI. The latest models finally introduced cross-jurisdictional compatibility between different regions’ contract models.
Andre finished his call, I sent payment to the waitron with a tip and thanked Andre. For a moment I couldn’t understand why the car didn’t respond to my proximity and unlock and then I realised it wasn’t mine any more. Senior moment. Since it was a lovely Autumn morning I decided to take a pod home and spend the rest of the day with my wife and children.
The recent news that the IBM computer, Watson, defeated the Jeopardy champion has captured the legal industry’s imagination and probably struck fear into many of its members. Legal commentators are already talking about the technology used in Watson doing legal research faster and more accurately than junior lawyers typically tasked with that sort of work.
What fascinates me is what Watson’s future generations will be capable of. It doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to see a possible future where artificial intelligence doesn’t just conduct legal research more accurately and quicker than human lawyers but also starts preparing better quality agreements and legal documents than their human counterparts. Should that occur (and I don’t see why it wouldn’t to some degree), lawyers will find themselves on the verge of being made irrelevant if they can’t distinguish their skillsets from the machine’s.
This brings me back to my post the other day about the legal services business we see today and where lawyers add value. If an artificial intelligence performs many of the tasks lawyers rely on as an integral part of their businesses, a great many lawyers will go out of business when we reach that critical point. Lawyers who hope to survive that event will likely survive through their ability to take the law and apply it to novel situations in innovative ways. Well, at least until artificial intelligence advances to a point where it does that better too.
For now, lawyers can safely rely on their time or documents as a means to earn an income, at least until their clients realise that their stated value in both their time and their documents is misplaced and that the value lies elsewhere.